Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Someone Who Is Like No One

“Someone who resembles no one” was a poem said to be by Forough Farokhzad. This poem was published a few years after her death. There is some question of whether she wrote it or not. However, I do not recall such questions or doubts about the authenticity of this piece ever having been raised. The poem prophesized the coming of a someone who does not resemble anyone, who will spread justice and maintain equality, who is kind and benevolent, who is a savior, like the Messiah or the Twelfth Imam. The poem was published more than any other of this poetess’ poems and indeed was very popular in early 70s. I personally thought that if this was her poem, it was a sharp departure of her style, which is very personal and sensuous. Well, this consideration was irrelevant. Given the political climate of the time, there was such a need for the appearance of a savior that literary authenticity has no place among the intellectuals. We all accepted it as authentic because it was the poem of our hearts and minds. We could not have welcomed anything more than a savior or the prophecy of his arrival.

Nor did it take long for him to arrive, on a cold winter in 1979, with millions of people welcoming him at the Mehrabad Airport. (It is very ironic that the poetess had prophesized that her own death would happen in a cold winter day too, and it happened).

We all thought he is the one who “resembles no one.” An American anchorwoman, Diane Sawyer, described him once after she interviewed him as follows: “He came like a wind and left like a spirit.” I do not know a wind or a spirit, but he came and left like all who come and go, only he left more of a footprint. He was not very kind the way we expected, nor was he that forgiving. He did not distribute equally. He did not like those that were not like him. He never smiled, nor looked happy. Peace was none his concern, but war? Hundreds of thousands were killed in a war which had nothing to do with us. He was angry and full of vengeance. Well, he resembled every one else who came and ruled this country of ours for a while. He just left a legacy behind: Private virtues. Still we are hearing from people who knew him in person that he liked honesty, equality, freedom, he respected human rights, peoples’ ideas, truth, faith etc., but none of these were heard by anyone else beyond a very few who are nobody and have no place in the system now. In fact he was like everybody else.

Years later another one came, smiling and pleasant, with lots of good words and good thoughts. In fact, he came from the desert city of Yazd, the land of Prophet Zoroaster, with the same good mind and good heart. But, poor man, he was given only few years to make up for 2500 years of shortcomings. He told people that no one is coming who “resembles no one,” do not waste your time and energy, you are the one, and you are not supposed to be very different to be good and effective. He said if you need change you must do it yourself. He backed this up with quotes from all twelve imams, all the prophets, all the thinkers, from Galileo to Kant to Brecht to Sartre. He told them that the one you are waiting for has come, and it is “you.” But no one believed him, people wanted him to be that “someone,” and if he is not, then he is a liar and traitor.

People gave up on him and that “someone” all together; though, young people found their savior in Mohseni Square or Azadi Square, gathering there after any events, either for celebrations or a candlelight ceremony. Being together to midnight and listening to loud music became a substitute, or maybe a refuge, from waiting for that “someone,” and for a while it worked.

Then it was someone else who “resembles no one.” She came with a big trophy, a Nobel Peace Prize. Millions went to the airport, with the banners and placards and greetings and hope. Alas, nothing came of that either, just a big Allaho Akbar. That one was not the right one either.

Soccer games and occasional midnight gathering and celebration kept filling the gaps between the arrival of the Promised Ones.

Then came the army of journalists. Mostly disillusioned from the first “coming of the someone who resembles no one.” They were promising. They were good because they were insiders who became outsiders. They knew everything and they were the ones to expose the regime’s secrets and discredit it. Then came the arrests and murders of the journalists and writers; one by one they had little time to be heros. Then came Ganji. In and out of prison and finally in and on hunger strike for three months, with all the press involved. Then came his manifesto. That gave hope that this time “someone” is really coming. But still he was in jail.

Then the latest “someone” came. No one had prophesized his arrival. It looked more like a coup. However, he claimed that he is the one. The Twelfth Imam has signed his CV. He was specially connected to him. He went with him to the UN and kept the other delegates from leaving the room while he was talking. And some of his friends even witnessed the halo around his head while he was talking. In fact I met him, not in the UN but in the Hilton Hotel. There was no halo of any sort around his head, just a big circle of basijis around him in the middle of a ball room chanting “This blood flowing through our veins is a gift to our Ahmad.” Listening to his speech, I realized why the delegates did not leave the room, if only there was a little resemblance between these two speeches. I had never heard such an empty, nonsensical and irrelevant speech in my life, aside from what comes from Bush's White House off and on.

And then Ganji came with a new manifesto. He held another hunger strike in front of the UN. We all went there, some 150, though the New York Times said we were only 50. It was nice to see all those old Confederationists and other leftists and National Fronters etc., all professionals, journalists, writers, university professors, and doctors. Ganji, however, said that he is not that “someone,” but we need “someone” to lead us. We need someone like Gandhi. It was great! But can’t you see, man? We are not like Indians. Even if Gandhi comes, we are not going to listen to him. We are not even interested in listening to his strategy to adjust ours to his. We are going to tell him what sort of Gandhi he must be. We won’t let him even be his own Gandhi. Moreover, no Iranian could be like Gandhi. Being with the people for the people among the people is too much for us. We have to do everything by ourselves, alone.

Well he has not gone yet. We love him, adore him, but listening to him is something else, we have to think about it.

However, the latest “one that resembles no one” finally arrived. It is a book called Iran Awakening. It really resembles no one, it was published by court order! It is in the bookstores, but not on their shelves or the window displays or tables, but in the back rooms or somewhere safe, under the shelves. One has to go to the information desk and ask for it.

It is a good book, but is written in a rush, there are enough unresolved law suits and cases that you would know it is the memoir of a lawyer from the Islamic Republic. It is a very good book; it does not promise any one coming at all. She tells you right away that things are indeed very hopeless; there is a lot of gloom and doom, blackness and bleakness. But the author is very optimistic, she is a fighter and very stubborn; and she promises that she will find a way to save at least some of us. I do not think anything will come out of that either.

I do suggest that we all should get good break for a while and leave that “some one” to come whenever is a good time for him or her. Meantime, we can read a few good classics, Willa Cater or George Eliot; go to the museum and see a few good paintings, some Brueghel or Vermeer; or the best of all go to a botanical garden to see if we can find some water lilies, and if not, just sit down next to the nearest water source, pick up a piece of stone, clean it well, and examine it very carefully while listening to the water. There are things written there far more meaningful than many words. For sure it will bring us more peace.

To read the rest, click here.

Cutting off Their Hands

Let’s set the record straight.

Today I read an article in Emrooz On Line by Mohammad Ali Abtahi. He wrote it after the Conference on the Anniversary of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran, during which he found a chance to chat with Dr. Ebrahim Yazdi
Apparently the comparison between the current Constitution and the old one was one of the unofficial themes among the participants. So, after the conference, Abtahi asked Dr. Yazdi, who was a Cabinet Minister of Provisional Government of Bazargan, why they did not put the original draft of constitution, which had not been drafted by

clerical members of the Assembly of Experts and did not include the principle of velayat faqih in it, for a referendum, as recommended by Ayatollah Khomeini? Dr. Yazdi answered, “Well, see how much trouble we have even with this Constitution, could you imagine who would have accepted a more liberal one?” Abtahi, with his usual dignity, writes that this is not a good explanation. He suggests that Yazdi could have said something smarter like, “Well, we meant something else and what happened was not what we expected.” It was so nice of Mr. Abtahi to try to save an old friend and colleague from further embarrassment in the case someone asked him this question.

I would like to reassure Mr. Abtahi that nothing of that nature will ever happen. We Iranians are not famous for our accuracy, as you might know, and even worse is our lack of accountability, if not responsibility; otherwise things would not be this way. After reading this article, I did send Mr. Abtahi an email asking why he did not ask this question, along with many others, a little earlier or why he did not write about it before. I hope he comes up with a better answer than what Yazdi did, I’m waiting.

Also, speaking of Yazdi, he is very interesting fellow. Right before revolution, he appeared on the scene along with a group of people, Sadeq Ghotbzadeh, Abol-Hasan Bani Sadr, Sadeq Tabatabai, Mehdi Bazargan, etc. Unknown to the public like the rest of them, but Bazargan, he produced or forged a resume full of fictitious revolutionary deeds. He resided on a cabinet seat for a while and then served as an MP and then....

They all are gone, but he is still there. We still don’t know who he is or what he stands for. But one thing is for sure: he is responsible for the most famous expression in the entire brief history of the Islamic Republic, although he has gotten no credit for it: “cutting the hands of foreigners.” I do recall that day in Neauphle-le-Chateau, when an American TV reporter for one of the Sunday morning program (I think it was Peter Jennings), in response to a question by the reporter, Khomeini said in Farsi that his main goal for Iran is its independence, and that he would do his utmost for foreigners to take their hands off Iran. What he said in Farsi, (literary phrase cutting one's hand of something) was nothing strange at all. We use this metaphor in whole range of expressions indicating “to leave one alone” or “ to take hands off something.” Though, Yazdi’s misinterpretation brought such fame to this ordinary phrase.

What surprises me the most is that since that memorable time, Heaven knows how many times this phrase has been the subject of ridicule and laughter here in United States, Europe and even in Iran, but no one ever looked to see where it came from. Whatever we may accuse Khomeini of, speaking English is not one of them, so it was very natural to look for the right source, which we did not; and Dr. Yazdi, who knew very well that he had misinterpreted that phrase, possibly because he was over-excited, could have issued a statement and corrected it and put it to rest, but he didn’t.

We still hear reference to it. The last time I read about it was just two weeks ago in Shirin Ebadi’s Iran Awakening, where she put it down to an awkward statement of Khomeini which would only serve to further offend an offended human rights activist. Moreover, the fact that all this time no one listened to Khomeini when he spoke Farsi is beyond my imagination, and that no one came to his defense or even questioned all this noise about an ordinary expression or why none of all those people who claimed to be his true followers cared enough to tell him what was being attributed to him or even that Yazdi’s son in law, with that impeccable English of his, did not notice it. After all this time, Yazdi still keeps quiet and does not come out with a simple explanation so that the poor Ayatollah could rest in peace.

To make a long story short, the next time if someone sits next to Dr. Yazdi in some conference or meeting, could he please ask him about that. And could he also ask him who he is and what is he doing there anyhow. And finally, why doesn’t he take his hands off the reform movement before someone cuts them?

To read the rest, click here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Shahrokh Meshkin Ghalam and Kafan Siah

This was the third performance by this talented Iranian artist that I saw. The first one was called Bahram Gur and the Slave Girl and was performed in Symphony Space a few years ago. It was a bit less than 30 minutes and followed a long monotonous piano concert by a novice young Iranian pianist. Having rescued us from the boredom of the concert and its conciseness and flavored by the delightful angelic voice of Darya Dadvar, accentuated the dazzling performance of Shahrokh Meshkin Ghalam, was very promising and we all expected to see him for years to come on stage. He danced and whirled so passionately that one was impatient for his female dancing partner to leave the stage so we could watch him alone with his soul.

The second performance was Zohreh and Manouchehr, an adaptation of a play by Iraj Mirza, a great Iranian satirical poet. Shahrokh was playing the role of Zohreh, the female character. His impersonation of the female role, performed in a cozy playhouse on St. Marks St., was charming and delightful. Meshkin Ghalam, with his remarkable wit and his graceful acting, conveyed Iraj Mirza’s satirical story very well. The impersonation was, in fact, quite effective and a very creative form for performing this particular play. This second performance created an even higher expectation in the audience. He is a new hope as a new breed of young Iranian artist that we had been deprived of, at least out of Iran.

Kafan Siah, his third show, was performed in the same play house in St. Mark Place. The set design was fuller than his two previous performances and the stage was used more effectively. It included a simple backdrop screen with slide picture of historical ruins which were supposed to have been the imaginary setting of the show. Custom design, as usual, was very elegant and beautiful, and above all the audience, which during these few years developed quite a love and admiration for him, was ready to praise him generously. The story was a social narrative poem of a famous Iranian poet, Mirzadeh Eshghi, a dissident political poet. At the turn of century, Eshghi, an advocate of reform and democracy, was killed by the order of Reza Shah for the crime of his sharp criticisms.

Shahrokh was introduced to us as the winner of the Iranian Oscar, the Gold Lion, and his permanent membership in Comedie de France, which added to our expectation. However we were disappointed to see that his performance lacked the quality we expected from him. The two most significant skill that Shahrokh is famous for, dancing and impersonation, were missing completely, and that left us with less than an hour of poetry reading, only with pretty costumes, for the price of $45 per ticket. I found the performance unprepared and hasty, devoid of any inspiration or even the passion which we were used to seeing in Shahrokh’s performances. Knowing what he could have created, I was so disappointed to see there was only his pretty costume and his elegance, for which we are still grateful. But I for one am quite willing to sacrifice that for good acting. What was even more disturbing was that there was not even an innovation in his reading of the poem to make the poem easier on the ears of a contemporary audience, especially for educated, sophisticated Iranian women. Shahrokh may not believe it, but many of us are too far from being dead, or wearing a burial shroud (kafanpush), let alone a black one, to appreciate the wisdom of the poet who troubled himself one hundred years ago to describe it. Many of us can not even imagine what that kind of discrimination might mean. Many of us have never been discriminated against to appreciate the sight of a black kafanpush women. The image portrayed by Eshghi is too far from our lives or even those of our mothers, if not our grandmothers. Of course, that does not diminish the value or quality of the poet, Eshghi, but this is the problem of certain subject matter, and the particular view points, which dies or fades away through time and even locality. It is the directors’ and artists’ responsibility to bring these dead textures into the fabric of our present life so that audience can relate to it.
I can imagine that this play could have been more relevant to our time if it would have been part of a bigger collection of performances, i.e. if it would have been followed by a contrasting theme to reveal the changes which have taken place or by a play with the opposite ending due to some incident, effort or pure luck, or even simply change of time.

I hope this is only an accidental lapse in the career of this talented artist and not a permanent slump, and I hope that the receiving an award of whatever nature and value would translate itself into more efforts towards perfection and the sublime.

To read the rest, click here.

Shirin Ebadi's Iran Awakening

“I inhaled a great breath and belted out the loudest Allaho Akbar I could mange. Everyone, from the airport crew to the thousand of citizens, froze in surprise.” Indeed, we all did. After all, for about 27 years, whatever pertained to religion has been monopolized by some very exclusive self-appointed emissaries of God. No one expected Shirin Ebadi, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, to utter those words upon arrival in Iran after it was announced that she won the prize. This is from the last chapter and, to be exact, the last few pages of her book, Iran Awakening. This matches another anecdote in the beginning of the book. When she was a little child, she recalled:

One day that year I crept up to the attic to make a quite appeal to God. ‘Please, please keep my mother alive,’ I prayed, so that I could stay in school. Suddenly, an indescribable feeling overtook me, starting in my stomach and spreading to my fingertips. In that stirring, I felt as though God was answering me. My sadness evaporated, and a strange euphoria shot through my heart. Since that moment my faith in God has been unshakable.

These two anecdotes, punctuated by “carrying the Koran” in her graduation, “receiving the Koran” as a wedding gift and house warming present from the head of the supreme court, and her wedding picture exhibiting her husband kissing Koran, indicate the aim not only of confronting those emissaries of God, but of reclaiming something that once belonged to all.

Underlying these two stories is the story of a young woman who became a judge with the hope of making an impact. Like so many of us, she went through life preparing herself for a life with which she is familiar, for a kind of life in which a woman can be a judge, and all of a sudden one morning she notices that that world does not exist any more. It is more like a dream in early morning, in which one does not know what is reality and what is dream. But then she knows which one is dream: the one which was stolen and changed by a brutal reality. And she is determined to take it back, she is fighting for it. And she succeeds. She is victorious not in the sense of a real world victory, but in a sense that she revives her dream, she reclaims the greatest of all dreams: the one which, brutally, was taken away from Iranian: religion or better to say in Iranian terms, faith.

The Iranian Islamic Revolution, ironically, wiped out and destroyed an aspect of Iranian life which nothing could restore. It smeared faith by mixing it with the ugliest establishment in the history of the human race: politics.

Shirin Ebadi’s memoir is the embodiment of a struggle to maintain and sustain life in a land that no longer has any trace of hope or any open window in it. She had to find her way in dark, narrow alleys with no foreseeable end. She gives us an account of her struggles with the members of judiciaries who are not even willing to be challenged or even interested in listening. She recalls her meeting with the conservative parliament deputies over gender equality issues, and when she presented them with a direct quote from an Islamic jurisprudence book, she is simply thrown out of parliament. Or when she is defending her client and appeals for justice and asks for the punishment of a criminal who raped and murdered an innocent child, the case is thrown out window because a few strands of her hair were showing. As a reader, one gets frustrated to the point of madness, but that is not Ebadi’s way. Her compassion for people and her dedication to justice and law is her driving force. Apart from the books written by a few opposition members, I do not recall any book written by anyone who lives in Iran and has an active life there who writes with such daring.

She is very critical of clerical rule in Iran and her criticism even includes the person of Ayatollah Khomeini, even though this is fashionable in Iranian politics to refrain from criticizing Khomeini or the Supreme Leader, now Ali Khamenei. Critics write very carefully and cautiously not to offend anything or anyone in high office. Even President Khatami, while in office, when complaining of the obstructive elements who prevented him from executing his plans, referred to them as “those”, “they”, “reactionaries” or even more obscure terms “tahajor,” as if they are some groups from out of space who have invaded the country. But Ebadi very courageously points to the culprits and hold them responsible for what they have done.

Ebadi is concerned with judiciary malfunction, abuse of power, corruption, violations of human rights, including children’s’ rights, woman’s equality, prisoner’s safety and access to a fair trial as well as freedom of expression. After she was stripped of her judgeship, she advocated on behalf of the oppressed and abused parties of these cases pro bono. Ebadi in fact not only represents her client in court, she has to come with the materials to present to the court to demonstrate that there exist laws in favor of her clients, which indeed, is ruled out of order by the presiding judges without any argument or explanation. Almost all the cases she describes in the book, including none political cases, remain unresolved. Nevertheless, dismay is banished from Ebadi’s mind. She does not hesitate to recall her mistakes and her failures and even sometimes her fruitless efforts, which result in a much more human and living picture of her.

Ebadi talks about the role of various institutions in the Islamic Republic that operate as obstacles to any sort of reform in the judiciary and social justice. The Guardian Council, which overrules legislation and has to approve the candidate for the presidency and parliamentary election, is another obstacle on top of every other problem that exists in the Islamic Republic. The criticism of the unelected council which qualifies the candidates for elected office; and criticism of the authority given to another unelected office, that of the Supreme Leader, coming from an active voice within the country, gives the objection more credibility. She even questions that why seventy per cent of the population, namely the young generation, won’t come to the street to protest. Given the political climate in Iran, this encouragement is worthy of attention.

When Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize, I felt so proud and honored as an Iranian woman. I thought this award was an acknowledgement for all Iranian women, particularly those who live in Iran and all woman activists. Ms. Ebadi in fact became the “collective Iranian women.” With that in mind, I read the book very eagerly. Although the book is a breath of fresh air in the suffocating political climate of Iran and deserves a hearty welcome at least for its sincerity and its courage, there are issues that one expected to hear more about. The solitude and singularity that colors the entire book is not what one expects reading a memoir of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. One expects a kind of movement or at least some collective activity to be associated with the person. One expects to see some sort of institution or establishment initiated or the acceptance of some sort of leadership. Collectiveness and teamwork are all absent from this memoir.

The publication of book was simultaneous with Akbar Ganji’s trip and his hunger strike in various cities in Europe, US, and Canada, whose central issue was the violation of human rights in Iran. Both Ebadi and Ganji are very committed to this issue and they both are working so hard to do something about it. Yet in practice, they both are devoid of any solution. I do not know how long Ms. Ebadi wants to bang her head against the stone wall of Islamic Republic, and I don’t know how long Akbar Ganji could stay on hunger strike, I don’t know how long women could go to street and get beaten by thugs, and I don’t know how many more journalists will die in jail either on hunger strike or under torture. Sometimes, somehow, all this repression should come to an end, something should change. Ebadi argues that reform and lawfulness are impossible while unelected officials rule over the elected ones. On the other hand, since any change in law or the constitution should pass through an existing establishment, it seems we are in a vicious circle. And being trapped in a closed circle is far from the “hope” promised on the cover of the book. What slams shut any window of hope is that extremity of loneliness persisting through the book. One person is not enough to change a system, not even a very insignificant part of it.

Ebadi’s book recalls the speeches of Ganji in front of the UN when he said we need a Gandhi. It occurred to me that finding a Gandhi is not that difficult. It is more difficult to find a kind of Gandhi who believes that Gandhiness requires a movement, a Gandhi who believes in others, a Gandhi who knows for sure that in order to be a Gandhi, there need to be “others,” otherwise even hundred Gandhis won’t accomplish anything. This strong belief in a “single” hero, which characterizes almost all the activism in today’s Iran, and is so well reflected in Ebadi’s book, destroys any glimpse of hope in me.

To be sure, the book is a light on the dark horizon of Iranian politics, where everything is taking place behind closed doors with an iron gate guarded by religion. But even though Ebadi is breaking into a territory from which ordinary Iranians have been barred for least the last two and a half decades, there remains the depressing question of whether or not she won’t get lost there. After all, how could one fight against a system single-handedly? She is also walking through a hazardous road; she has to overcome so much hardship that the reader fears her metamorphosis. As the Iranian expression goes: One has devoured so many of snakes that one has become a dragon. I hope that this does not happen to our activist.

However, valuable this book is, there are a few missing pieces.Ms. Ebadi has claimed over and over again that human rights are compatible with Islam, but never presented any arguments except to appeal to the fact that we can interpret the Koran to harmonize with the civil laws if we want to. Of course this begs the question, what if we don’t want to? This is the case with the ruling clerics. The same with her claim about the equality of women: Obviously there is no such equality in any of the Islamic jurisprudence books; for their concept of equality itself is not the same as what we mean by equality today. However, that does not mean we have to abandon it completely; there are arguments which could be built in over the principles of Islam, such as justice. As far as I know, she has never come with any arguments for her claims except when appealing to interpretations which lead us into another vicious circle since, for any interpretation to find legitimacy, it has to go through the labyrinths of the complicated system and hierarchy of the Islamic clerical order, which requires the authority of exactly those people that we are challenging.

We, too, deserve an explanation from the publisher of the book about why a book of such importance, which was published by court order, should not have a Persian-English reader. (If there was one, it is not mentioned in the book) This would have taken care of several points which, while by no means harming the content of book, did make it appear hastily and carelessly written. Any Persian reader closer to Ms. Ebadi’s generation and culture knows that the Paykan automobile in 1968-1969 cannot be clunky: the first Paykan came to the market in 1967 and indeed was a simple, efficient, and nice car. Again, it is fair to assume that Ms. Ebadi would not have choosen to write that a certain religious dignitary “barks.” One assumes that she writes in a more harmonious and consistent language, too.

Along the same lines, I did not hear the voice of Ms. Ebadi at all through this book. Reading the book, what I had in mind was what would happen if we were to translate the famous speeches of Prime Minister Dr. Mossadegh in the International Court in the Hague and the UN into the language of a young East Village poet. I’m sure it would be appreciated by many, but it would be such an injustice to our hero. His elegant, old fashion tone of voice should be preserved as well as the content and eloquent facility of his arguments. So it is with Ms. Ebadi’s book. I wanted to hear her voice, as well as some of her arguments.

One also wonders why a book of such a magnitude has not received the publicity it deserves. What is the point of a book being published if people are not aware it exists? I had to go to my bookstore’s front desk and ask for the book in order to find it. There are much less significant books in the display window and new arrival desks and one wonders why this book is not featured up front and center.

To read the rest, click here.